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Arizona volleyball to face wounded North Carolina and Wake Forest in first road trip of the season

arizona-wildcats-volleyball-setters-training-herman-tortorello-heath-egbert Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

It was supposed to be the toughest weekend before Pac-12 competition started for Arizona volleyball. Going into the season, the only nonconference foe on the Wildcats’ schedule to be receiving votes in the AVCA poll was North Carolina. Then, the first week of competition happened.

The Tar Heels didn’t have much luck when they visited the state of Colorado, going 1-2 in Fort Collins and Greeley. The first loss came to the traditionally strong Colorado State Rams in a 3-1 match. UNC rebounded to take a straight-set victory over UC Santa Barbara at Northern Colorado, but then fell in straight sets to the host Bears. None of the Heels’ opponents finished better than 61st in last season’s RPI while UNC finished No. 32.

“I was a little bit surprised about how things went down with them last week,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “But playing them at home is going to be different just because we’re traveling that five or six hours to get there. Three time zones later, it’d be definitely a transition for us.”

In addition to the home court advantage, the Tar Heels have advantages on the roster, as well. They are returning several key pieces from last year’s NCAA Tournament team and have added some key players.

“Charley Niego, she played at Notre Dame last year and had a great match against us when we played Notre Dame at Texas,” Rubio said.

That’s a match the Wildcats lost the day after pushing No. 1 Texas to four sets.

Before getting to UNC on Saturday, the Wildcats have to get through Wake Forest on Friday. The Demon Deacons ran into some problems of their own in the form of Western Carolina. The Catamounts took a five-setter in Winston-Salem. Kennesaw State also pushed Wake Forest, eventually succumbing to the 3-1 defeat.

Still, the travel issue will come into play when the Wildcats face the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest will be playing in their home state while Arizona was scheduled to be on a plane at 5:30 a.m. MST on Thursday for the 12:30 p.m. match on Friday.

Travel is something that comes with the territory. What Rubio doesn’t want to be part of the equation is errors, especially on serve and serve receive.

“You’re really working to stay within that eight percent or lower error rate (on serve),” Rubio said. “(Last week) we were at, I think, 14 percent. The idiosyncrasy about volleyball is you’re moving the scoreboard every time you make an error and you’re moving it for your opponent.”

Rubio wasn’t unhappy with the week’s practice, but said it was “a little bit up and down.”

“We’re just continuing to work on our transition game and in serve receive,” he said. “We’re not where we need to be service-wise. So we need to work on that a little bit more. Really working hard on the transition game, trying to set the middle as often as we can. For me, we just can’t practice enough. Players, it’s the exact opposite. We’re practicing too much.”

Setting the middles has been effective for Arizona in the early going. Sophomore middle Alayna Johnson currently leads the Wildcats with 2.75 kills per set. Fifth-year senior Zyonna Fellows is fifth with exactly 2.00 k/s. Johnson trails only outside hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz with 22 total kills.

As expected, the two starting middles lead the Wildcats in hitting percentage with Fellows at .483 and Johnson at .447. That puts Fellows fifth in the Pac-12 and Johnson is just behind her in sixth after the first week of play.

Arizona does need more production from its pins, though. No one on the team ranks in the top 20 in the Pac-12 in kills per set. Johnson is the closest at No. 22. Maldonado Diaz is just outside the top 25, tied for 26th with 2.67 k/s.

The Wildcats will have to try to solve that problem while taking a step up in the competition level.

Arizona Wildcats (3-0) vs Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2-1)

When and where: The match will tip off at 12:30 p.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 2 at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, NC.

Streaming: The match will stream on ACCNX.

Stats: In-game stats can be accessed at North Carolina Live Stats.

Arizona Wildcats (3-0) @ North Carolina Tar Heels (1-2)

When and where: The match will tip off at 3:30 p.m. MST on Saturday, Sept. 3 at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, NC.

Streaming: The match will stream on ACCNX.

Stats: In-game stats can be accessed at North Carolina Live Stats.